Free Ric O'Barry

A Miami guy stars in a Sundance film and is sued by angry Dominican dolphin geeks.

On a damp September morning in 2006 at the edge of a sleepy Japanese fishing town, an orchestra of screaming voices echoed off the glistening rock walls of a hidden sea cove. Men in navy blue raincoats bobbed on 40-foot boats, hoisting spears nearly twice their height.

One by one, they brought the weapons down on the slick, rubbery backs of a cornered pod of dolphins — leaving the choppy, once-midnight-blue water an ominous syrupy crimson. When the work began, there were hundreds. When it finished, there were only 12 dolphins left alive. Afterward, hunters calmly tossed the lifeless mammals into piles on boats bound for a nearby meat-packing plant.

Ric O'Barry was there. Dressed in black, he clung to the side of a 100-foot rock wall with one hand and held a video camera in the other. The quietly handsome 69-year-old dolphin-trainer-turned-activist snatched the footage at Yoshino Kumano Kokuritsu Koen National Park in Taiji, Japan, to try to stop the slaughter.

Ric O'Barry and Flipper in 1964
Dolphin Project archives
Ric O'Barry and Flipper in 1964

The Coconut Grove native ended up both a hero and a target. A Dominican theme park recently sued him in South Florida for messing with its business. And he's the star of a soon-to-be nationally released heist documentary called The Cove — which in January took the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. This all comes after a stint in jail and a handful of high-profile anti-captivity stunts that have made him one of the world's most publicly loathed — and loved — animal rights activists.

"What goes on there [in Japan] is so graphic. You smell the death; you hear the shrieks," he says. "I wanted to embarrass the government to the point they shut this thing down."

O'Barry, whose tired hazel eyes are framed by deep age lines, now lives in South Miami with his Danish wife and four-year-old adopted Chinese daughter. Though he loses sleep over dolphin mistreatment, in the mid-1960s he coached a dolphin named Kathy to play the title role for the TV series Flipper, which was set at a fictional South Florida marine park.

Everything changed one afternoon in March 1970. The then-30 year-old rode his bike from the Grove to Miami Seaquarium, where he learned Kathy was acting troubled. When he approached her cramped tank, she looked him in the eye, clenched her blowhole, and sunk to the bottom. She stayed under long enough to drown. "She literally died in my arms," he remembers. "I was sobbing." (That's possible, says Humane Society senior marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose: "Dolphins can decide not to live... out of stress, fear, and confusion.")

The next day, he impulsively flew to Bimini to free Charlie Brown, a caged dolphin he had once captured in Biscayne Bay. He rented a boat on a moonless night and piloted it into the dolphin's pen at Lerner Marine Lab. While trying to coax out the dolphin, the tide rose and trapped the vessel in the cage. Police arrested him for trespassing. (He served a week in jail.)

His stunts have since drawn attention from around the world, including the New York Times. He once strapped on a TV set with dead dolphin images and strolled into an International Whaling Commission meeting. Another time, he sat atop a submarine bomb he believed would harm sea life. He has also been a leader of the Free Lolita movement to release Miami Seaquarium's trained killer whale.

"He's a liar and a malcontent," says Robert Lingenfelser, president of the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo. "He's done nothing for marine mammals; he only shows up when the cameras are on."

Counters friend Glenn Terry: "Everybody in the industry hates him... But he's a hero."

Six years ago, O'Barry first voyaged to Taiji after he heard 2,300 dolphins annually were slaughtered there for meat. Soon he began making videos like the one he later shot from the edge of the cove wall. He sent them to places such as the Washington Post and the Japan Times. Nobody paid much attention. (Marion Renk-Richardson, producer for the German-based Spiegel TV, told New Times that O'Barry "fashioned himself a rock-star dolphin activist" but that she ultimately found him flaky.)

Then, in winter 2005, O'Barry met Louie Psihoyos, a veteran National Geographic photographer. O'Barry had been banned from speaking at a marine life conference at SeaWorld in San Diego after organizers realized he planned to show a video of dolphins being massacred. The tall, square-jawed photographer was curious about the censored speech, so he called the activist, who described "the killing cove."

"[O'Barry] is the most committed, tenacious, and passionate human I've ever met," Psihoyos says. "He routinely risks his life to save dolphins."

A week later, Psihoyos flew to Taiji and began to follow the activist around the cove with a video camera. "It's a formidable place," Psihoyos says. "It's basically a bunch of local thugs."

Though they set out to make an environmental exposé, the filming soon became more like Ocean's Eleven than An Inconvenient Truth. The cove, they found, was strictly patrolled by police, fenced-off with razor wire, and guarded by snarling dogs.

So they devised a plan to sneak in and set up hidden cameras. Using military-grade equipment fitted with night vision and heat sensors, they were able to detect and avoid night guards. They persuaded billionaire Netscape Communications founder Jim Clark to bankroll the film's $2.5 million budget.

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